The final verses of Parashat Shelach introduce the mitzva of tzitzit – the requirement to affix strings to the corners of a four-cornered garment. The mitzva actually consists of two separate requirements – affixing white strings, and adding one string dyed in tekheilet (a bluish dye extracted from a certain species of snail) to each corner (15:38).
The Rambam, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (asei 14), surprisingly incorporates both requirements in his listing of the mitzva of tzitzit. In his view, both the white strings and the tekheilet string constitute one of the Torah’s 248 affirmative commands, and should not be counted as two separate mitzvot. The Rambam’s classification is surprising because it violates the one of his own rules by which he arrived at his listing of the 248 Biblical commands. In his introduction to Sefer Ha-mitzvot, where the Rambam enumerates the fourteen rules he followed in listing the commands, he writes (shoresh 11) that requirements which are not mutually indispensable should be counted as two separate mitzvot, even if they are related. Thus, for example, the Rambam maintains that the obligation of tefillin comprises two separate affirmative commands (asei 12 and asei 13) – one to wear the tefillin shel yad, and another to wear the tefillin shel rosh. Since these two obligations can be fulfilled independently of one another – for example, one who does not have one must nevertheless wear the other – they are counted as two separate mitzvot. The two components of the mitzva of tzitzit – like the two components of the obligation of tefillin – can be fulfilled independently of one another, and thus the mitzva of tzitzit has remained binding even after the tradition for producing tekheilet was lost. And yet, the Rambam counts the two requirements of tzitzit as just a single mitzva – in violation of his own rule for listing the Torah’s commands.
The Rambam himself addresses this question, both in discussing the mitzva of tzitzit (asei 14) and in his introduction to Sefer Ha-mitzvot (shoresh 11). He writes that tzitzit marks an exceptional case of two related requirements which are binding independently of each other but nevertheless should be counted as a single mitzva. The Rambam reaches this conclusion on the basis of an explicit comment of the Sifrei establishing that both the white strings and the tekeheilet string of tzitzit comprise a single mitzva. However, although the Rambam brings a source for his view, he does not explain why the mitzva of tzitzit is exceptional in this regard and should be counted as a single mitzva despite incorporating two independent requirements.
Rav Michael Rosensweig suggests that this unique feature of tzitzit might relate to the theme reflected by this mitzva – the theme of, in Rav Rosensweig’s words, “the unity, integrity, interconnectivity, and holistic nature of the halachic system.” The Torah states that the tzitzit strings are meant to remind us of “kol mitzvot Hashem” – “all of the Lord’s commands” (15:39), so that we remember to perform “kol mitzvotai” – “all of My commands” (15:40). The strings remind us not simply that we are bound by the mitzvot, but that we are bound by all the Torah’s commands, that they are all, as Rav Rosensweig writes, “a unified, integrated philosophy of avodat Hashem that together are more than the sum of their parts.”
The different colored strings thus represent the different areas of our service of God, and they are incorporated into a single mitzva because this mitzva reflects precisely the point that all of the Torah’s laws belong to a single, integrated system. Rav Rosensweig writes: “In this respect, tzitzit constitutes an embodiment, thus a constant reminder, that the discrete imperatives of the halachah also and especially constitute a unified if complex outlook on life.” The halakhic system “addresses all facets of existence” and “defines and dictates interactions and priorities.” In so doing, it “eschews a narrow and compartmentalized stance that enables one to pick and choose in the domain of religious commitment, or to assert a secular or neutral domain.”
The exceptional property of tzitzit, incorporating two separate commands, reflects the broader message this mitzva conveys – that all the Torah’s laws combine to form a single integrated system, each component of which constitutes a vitally important part that demands absolute fealty, and to which we are unconditionally bound.